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From Margin to Main Character

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Issue: 11 Section: Arts Topics: disability

December 1, 2003

From Margin to Main Character

Deafening brings disability to the centre of mainstream fiction

by Laura Cardiff


I always get suspicious when in coffee shops, on buses, trains, and coffee tables, or peering out of purses, I see the same book. It seems that everyone except me is part of the same book club, and they've all picked up the assigned reading for the month. Not too long ago, this novel was The Life of Pi, and the ubiquity of this brightly coloured, incessantly discussed novel made me want to avoid it, for the sole reason that nobody else seemed to. In a few weeks, when the paperback version is released, I have a feeling this book will be Canadian author, Francis Itani's Deafening.

For a first novel, Deafening has had astounding success and has already made Itani a millionaire. Without having been shortlisted for any major literary award or chosen by Oprah's Book Club, such an achievement is certainly uncommon. Nevertheless, I approached Deafening with caution. Could the novel really be that out of the ordinary, or was its success more a testament to HarperCollins' marketing skill?

I can say that, stylistically at least, there was nothing astonishing about this novel. The plot was at times predictable, the form somewhat conventional, and the pace a little slow for my liking. Perahps this very stylistic conventionality is a contributing factor to its commercial success. As a general rule, bestsellers rarely challenge established standards of form. In its content, on the other hand, Deafening fills a void many of us probably never noticed existed.

Itani's novel describes the life of a girl growing up in the small town of Deseronto, Ontario, and her relationship with Jim, who becomes a soldier in WWI. Fairly standard fare: war, peace, love, loss, pain, and some Canadian history. Here conventionality is a contributing factor to the novel's success; these are universal themes with mass appeal. However, the main character, Grania, is left deaf at the age of 5 as a result of scarlet fever. When was the last time you read a piece of fiction about a deaf person? When, in fact, was the last time you read a novel about anybody with any sort of disability? I can name several novels in which such characters figure marginally: Dickens' novels, for example, are full of deaf old ladies, "cripples," and dwarves. But they serve only as one-dimensional villains or as comic relief. There are few novels which actually explore the experience of being marginalized due to a perceived disability. Considering that approximately 1 in 8 Canadians lives with a disability, this is an inappropriate silence.

"Increasingly, we are understanding that impairment is the rule and normalcy the fantasy."
There is a similar silence when it comes to scholarly work on the subject. Somehow, despite the emphasis that feminist and queer studies place on the body and postcolonial studies places on how people are "othered" based on criteria such as race, class, sex, or sexuality, the topic of disability is typically overlooked. Instead, academia has focussed on the "freak." However, in the past 5 or 6 years there has been an explosion of scholarly work which seeks to redress this negligence, bringing to light the ways we think about those with disabilities. Increasingly, we are understanding that impairment is the rule and normalcy the fantasy.

These are exactly the issues which Itani's novel brings to light. Grania's mother initially refuses to send her to the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville because this would force her to acknowledge her daughter's difference. Instead, she wants her daughter to lip-read and speak. Townspeople question whether Grania, being deaf, is capable of thought. They believe it is self-evident that she will not marry or have a life of her own.

Chapters open with quotes from Alexander Graham Bell, a strong advocate of the abolishment of sign language, and The Canadian, the school paper of the Ontario School for the Deaf. These quotations provide an historical context through which we watch the losing battle of the deaf community to retain its own language. Indeed, it is only in the past few decades that "oral" language such as ASL (American Sign Language), which has no written equivalent, have begun to be seen as legitimate, complete languages. As Grania says, language is the "battleground" of the deaf.

With her particular perception of the world around her, Grania realizes that there are many people in her community who feel as out of place as she does. Both the flu epidemic which sweeps through Ontario and the war leave thousands of people deaf, disfigured, and emotionally and physically scarred. She watches their struggles to blend in, a struggle she and her deaf friends have sought to master all their lives. And it is Grania who is able to help those around her to cope with their sense of isolation.

Deafening is a novel about communication that shows the way people often fail, but also sometimes miraculously manage, to understand one another. One secret to this novel's success certainly lies in the compelling character of Grania, whose unique point of view shows us our world in a light in which many of us have never considered it.

Laura Cardiff is writing from Kingston, Ontario, where she recently completed an MA in English at Queen's University.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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